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What’s in a Name? A lot… apparently!

Those of you who’ve been living in Japan for a while know how convoluted all this can get


The textbooks would have it that Mr. Brown asks “What’s your name?” and Ms. Smith duly answers with, “Karen Smith” (before calling for the manager, naturally). Simple as that. But real life is a little more complicated, especially when crossing nations and cultures, and Japan is a prime example.


We could tell our learners that, while Japanese typically put their family names before their given names, ‘foreigners’ do it in reverse. Except that’s not really helpful for several reasons: One, ‘foreigners’ includes Chinese, Vietnamese, and Koreans who will generally have names including three items, usually with the surname coming ‘first’. And in many other countries, the idea of a surname is vague — the simple first name/last name binary is more or less a Western notion. Not only that but on many formal documents, such as passports or medical records, the Western formula in fact matches the Japanese order: Guest, Michael. But then, many of us have middle names too. Sigh. Those of you who’ve been living in Japan for a while know how convoluted that can get.


On top of this, the whole notion of ‘first/last’ does not easily match Japanese perceptions. For example, one’s given name is rendered as the ‘below/under‘ name in Japanese, which sounds like ‘last‘. Then, there’s the understandable fact that many non-Westerners don’t have an instinct about which are common Eurocentric first or last names. Most of us might not give ‘George Anderson’ a second thought but your average non-Westerner may well think that he is ‘Mr. George‘, and that his parents’ names are thereby also ‘George‘. Everything becomes a bit like the Allan James/James Allan dilemma to those who are unfamiliar with Euro-labels.


And of course there’s no shortage of Westerners who are confused as to which of Shigemori and Kazue are which, and end up calling that visiting Japanese student ‘Shigemori‘ while presuming that they are interacting on a friendly, first-name basis.


…not ‘What’s your spell?‘ (which is something you might ask Harry Potter)


Then there’s the issue of spelling. A Thai visitor is asked by a Japanese healthcare worker about his name: ‘Ritthirong Tomtitchong‘ he responds,  and you can literally see the pen shaking in the inquirer’s hands. Interestingly, many Japanese feel it’s a bit presumptuous or impolite to then ask the spelling (as if they should just know it) but in my classes, when patient Kostas Kotsopolous is having a consultation they must ask about the spelling. And, no, not ‘What’s your spell?‘ (which is something you might ask Harry Potter), but ‘How do you spell that?’ 


The same holds, when going from writing to speaking, to check pronunciation: ‘Sorry, did I pronounce it correctly?’ ‘How do you pronounce it?’


Names come into play in my classroom on several other occasions. One is addressing the habit of humility that Japanese speakers employ in self-introductions, which often results in them saying their names far too rapidly for non-Japanese to grasp — an acoustic blur: ‘Good morning, I’m second year medical student nakazawatakunori. ‘ My advice to students is to provide their family name only in a formal, professional situation, and given name only in a casual, friendly one (nor do they need to precede their name with details of their affiliations, as is required in most Japanese name exchanges). 


…in my case, being referred to as ‘Guest teacher‘ can be a little unsettling


Thus, my medical students are taught to say, “Good afternoon. I’m Dr. Kodama“, and my nursing students say “Good evening, I’m Nurse Kushima.” And therein lies another interesting element of names/identity: in English you can refer to yourself as Dr. X (especially if you are the mysterious type), whereas in Japanese you never state your own title with your name (every fresh-off-the-boat foreigner makes the first-week-in Japan-mistake of calling herself something like Betty-san or, better, Betty-sensei).


Interestingly though, this does not apply to teachers, in either direction. As you might imagine, in my case, being referred to as ‘Guest teacher‘ can be a little unsettling. And ‘Mr. Mike‘ makes me feel like a ‘big brother’ character on a children’s NHK show.


Then there’s the fact that Japanese use names much, much more frequently than English speakers do, not as a sign of solidarity or bonding, but as pronoun placeholders. “What would Theresa like for breakfast?” might work literally in Japanese, but in English it comes across like speculation about absent parties (“What would Brian Boitano do if he were here right now?”).


Call it a ‘micro-assault’… if you like. I call it phonetics.


This discussion about the difficulty most have in managing names from outside one’s own linguistic comfort zone brings me to this annoying article on name usage which appeared on the BBC website in January. Have a read please.


So, why is it ‘annoying’? Well, it falls into that increasingly common journalistic category which could be subtitled, ‘Betcha didn’t realize that, BIGOT!’ in which the author displays his/her shining sensitivity while lambasting others for being so obtusely less virtuous. Let me unpack it for a moment. 


We are told that, ‘habitually pronouncing an unfamiliar name incorrectly is a form of implicit discrimination‘ and that mispronunciation means ‘ are minimal/You are not important in this environment, so why should I take time and my effort to learn it‘. In which case, I suppose that the many students and neighbours who call me ‘Maiku’ or ‘Gesuto’ are just closet racists.


But I have a simpler explanation, one you may recognize as being endorsed by William of Ockham: Perhaps one’s name is regularly mispronounced simply because it does not fit easily into the syllabary of a certain linguistic-normative environment. Hey, I have several Vietnamese friends, and lord knows I try, but I am not exactly nailing those Minhs, Ngocs, and Duyens. Call it a ‘micro-assault’ (as the writer of the article might) if you like. I call it phonetics.


Foreign teachers should stay well away from making ‘innocent’ jokes about Japanese names


Look, we all know that willfully making a hash out of a name is one way of taking the piss out of someone. But this goes on across all linguistic boundaries, so racism need not be the first interpretative mechanism when a name gets the works. Woe be to those graced with the Anglo-Saxon surname Butt. Or, recalling my high school days, with Popperill becoming Popcorn, Pooperill, or even Pillpopper. Nyuk nyuk. 


But let me end on this cautionary note: Foreign teachers should stay well away from making ‘innocent’ jokes about Japanese names. Asking a student named Genki, ‘O genki desu ka?’ is about as unfunny as a gubernatorial election… and your student will certainly not be feeling Genki upon hearing it. Or, if your name is Dave, imagine your Japanese students incessantly chuckling over how fat you are (‘Debu’, close to Dave in the Japanese rendering, equals ‘fatso’ in Japanese). And I don’t even want to mention what’s likely to be thought if your name is Kimball.


No, almost none of this equals ‘discrimination’, ‘a micro-assault’, or ‘othering’, as the BBC article would have it — but there is no doubt that names should be handled with particular care.



Mike Guest

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